A lawsuit filed on Feb. 8 challenges the ability of Facebook users to see ads on the platform that are targeted to them based on their past behavior or based on a fake profile that has been created for them by scammers.
The case is the latest legal development involving Facebook’s ad system, which is believed to be used by scammers, government entities, and news outlets to target people they don’t really know. The US firm was served with a similar suit last week by a group of North Dakota college students.
In both cases, the plaintiffs say that the automated advertisements—which, sometimes, are never seen by the person who views them—are what constitutes ads for the blind. They are asking for damages, along with access to the same ads as the blind.
Facebook requires the advertisers to make an account or go through the steps to get an account, so the company can include the ad targeting data for their own use. The judgment, however, suggests that if the court finds that Facebook should not be using the data for its own, as it would be for a first-time advertiser, then the social media company would have to change its system or face a heavy fine.
Facebook has been banned from using US and European Union-based newspaper and magazine subscriptions data for target ad placement, but it did not start tagging advertisements for the blind until it knew the suits were pending, according to three people familiar with the details.
The case, filed by a blind woman named Misty Wood and two nonprofit organizations called the Society for the Blind of Maryland and New York, could force a change in how Facebook handles ads targeting. This month’s court case, however, would seem to favor Facebook, given that Facebook said it wants to offer the ability to tag ads for the blind. “The coming weeks and months will be full of announcements from Facebook in ways that will only make our world better for those most vulnerable to tragedy,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement.
A number of US and European legislators have written to Facebook about ads aimed at the blind, requesting they exclude demographic data that could include information about race, age, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, health, or other identifiers that could target potential victims of discriminatory advertising. Facebook has been deluged with correspondence over the issue. In response, the company has said it is working with clients to develop what it calls “profiling only” systems for identifying ads that could be harmful to people.